“A Reporter’s Life” by Walter Cronkite reviewed

A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1996). 382 pp.

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

Published in 1996, Walter Cronkite’s memoirs, A Reporter’s Life, document an exciting life and career and reveal an engaging and decent man.  He begins, naturally, with his early life.  His childhood was a happy one and isn’t dwelt upon too much.  He quickly became involved with the media; he started out selling newspapers but rapidly progressed to being a cub reporter and then to more serious assignments.  He clearly loved the industry, writing fondly about “the heavy odor of printer’s ink and pulp paper and melting lead, and the building-shaking rumble of the big presses.” (33)  His journey to being the first news anchor and “the most trusted man in America” took him to Houston, Kansas City, Europe—including Soviet Russia—and other places, while going from newspapers to radio and back before landing on television.  Along the way, he shares a number of great stories and observations that are interesting and often quite insightful about how the news industry has changed.  For instance, he argues that competition between newspapers is good for accuracy: readers—and editors—can compare stories between newspapers, providing great incentive for the reporter to get it right.  With few cities now supporting multiple newspapers, this incentive is largely diminished or absent.

During his lengthy career Cronkite had innumerable exciting and unique experiences.  He met Bonnie and Clyde’s partner in crime, Ray Hamilton; he was also forced to vote—twice—by Boss Pendergast’s political machine in Kansas City; and he had a number of adventures in WWII, which he reported on from a number of angles.  He went on a bombing raid, serving as a gunner in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require reporters to be non-combatants.  He also flew on a sub-hunting mission to Iceland and back; they bombed a whale, having mistaken it for a u-boat.  And on D-Day he flew with another bombing mission, but that time they didn’t bomb anything due to clouds.  Later, he flew into France with some infantrymen on a glider, which he doesn’t recommend as a way to go to war.  One of his best wartime experiences happened when riding with Patton’s Third Army to the relief of Bastogne.  Patton stopped his tank when he saw Cronkite riding in a jeep without a helmet.  The reporter had to sheepishly admit that it had fallen off… and rolled into a minefield.  Upon learning that Cronkite was a war correspondent and not a soldier, Patton simply cursed and drove on.

Like everyone of that generation, Cronkite was effected by his experiences of the war.   He expresses internationalist views, which are also influenced, I imagine, by his many experiences working and living all over the world.  He writes that:

The world is unlikely to survive a third world war, which would almost certainly bring universal nuclear devastation.  If we are to avoid that catastrophe, a system of world order—preferably a system of world government—is mandatory.  The proud nations someday will see the light and, for the common good and their own survival, yield up their precious sovereignty just as America’s thirteen colonies did two centuries ago. (128)

He doesn’t develop these views, and one suspects that his own views don’t extend much deeper than that to all the difficulties that world government would entail and the obstacles to forming one at this time.

Cronkite’s insight on the many U.S. presidents that he knew is very interesting.  He writes that, as many are now coming to realize, Eisenhower was not the lazy, hands-off chief executive that had previously been portrayed.  He says that Nixon was easily “the most complicated personality to occupy the Oval Office”, but the reporter got along well with the 37th president; Cronkite was later disappointed not to have made his “enemies list.”  (224) The author says Nixon’s successor, “President-by-accident” Gerald Ford, was “one of the more affable, straight-arrow presidents,” though Reagan “won the affability contest hands down,” (238) though Cronkite largely disagreed with Reagan’s laissez-faire, trickle down policies.  Some of his observations are more surprising.  For instance, he says that

Of the presidents I have known since Herbert Hoover, the best brain was possessed by Jimmy Carter.  I base this not on his political or administrative skills, which clearly were wanting, but on his incredible ability to read complicated material and file and catalog it in his memory so that it could be instantly recalled when needed. (225)

He shares an anecdote when Carter extemporaneously “delivered an excruciatingly long dissertation on the history of all agricultural supports with facts and figures relating to every increase in milk prices since World War I.” (226)  I also found Cronkite’s thoughts on would-be president Adlai Stevenson, who he covered during the ’52 campaign, to be interesting.

I became a great admirer of his intellect, his personality, his gentlemanliness.  I also decided he would probably not make a good President.  He was almost too bright, too humane, too liberal (in the best sense of the word).  He saw and understood, it seemed, all sides of all issues. (181-2)

Cronkite seems fair in his assessments of the various politicians he covered.  His own views seem to be pretty centrist; he refers critically to the right wing several times, but has nothing against Republicans per se.  He is also not a leftist, writing critically about “confiscatory inheritance taxes” that he had to deal with. (374) Various people at different times wanted Cronkite to become involved in politics by running for office, without even knowing his positions on the issues.  He always turned them down—including Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted Cronkite to run for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1968.  Cronkite worried that “once there a prominent network anchor ran for public office, the people might suspect all news anchors of doctoring the news to satisfy secret political ambitions. (259)  He says “I can go Sherman one step further. … Not only if nominated, I would not run, and if elected, I would not serve, but if perchance I did serve, I would be impeached.” (210)

The chapter dealing with coverage of the space program was quite interesting, as were his dealings with Apartheid-era South Africa and the Middle East peace process, which was somewhat facilitated by one of Cronkite’s interviews of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Cronkite’s work also took him to the rain forest, the Himalayas, and 8500 ft. to the ocean bottom in the Alvin.  He also came close to going into space; he was one of 40 finalists to be NASA’s first reporter in space before the civilian in space program was ended when its first participant, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Challenger disaster.

Anyway, all of that is sort of interesting and adventuresome, but Cronkite’s observations and views on the evolution of the media and its place in a democratic society are the most thought provoking parts of the book.  He points out that back when political bosses selected the candidates, they did the screening; but now that candidates are selected not by party leaders but by voters in primary elections, the role of the press is much more important—since people are choosing their own candidates, they must have the information necessary to screen those men and women themselves. (197-8)  Unfortunately, the evening news is not a good way for voters to do this.  The average sound bite for presidential candidates during the ’92 election was just 8.2 seconds, and “naturally, nothing of any significance is going to be said in seven seconds, but this seems to work to the advantage of many politicians.” (376-7)  Cronkite, who is most famous as the first news anchor  (indeed, the term was coined for him, but was slow to be adopted in Sweden where such people were called “Cronkiters”) is very frank about the limits of TV news.  “The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who can prey upon the semi-informed. (380)

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

He points out that Germans after WWII claimed not to have known the holocaust was in progress.  Since the press had been shut down, these claims have some validity.  However, Cronkite does not absolve them of responsibility, since the German people acquiesced in the Nazi dismantling of the press; they made themselves ignorant. (268)  He is also critical of British officials who maintained excessive secrecy during the Falklands War and American officials who did likewise during the U.S. invasion of Grenada and actions in Panama and the First Gulf War.  Most notably, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was criticized by the Defense Department’s own official review of press relations for “an excessive concern for secrecy.” (269)  Cronkite points out that a free press is important for informing not just the citizenry, but also the government about what is going on. (298)  The Soviet government wouldn’t have needed so many spies and informants in their own country if they’d simply had a freer press.

Having an informed public is very important to the author.  He laments the state of history education, writing that “understanding the issues on which citizens of a republic are expected to vote is impossible without an understanding of the past.”  He says that those who have an opportunity to impart this knowledge but fail to do so “can be accused of sabotaging the democratic process.” (28)

And another thing—geography!  They don’t even seem to be trying to teach it anymore.  Maybe, now that we are homogenizing the world via television and the airplane, knowing where you are and where you’re going and what the place and people are like wherever you are isn’t considered as important as it once was.  But surely this knowledge is fundamental to understanding our place on this planet, philosophically as well as physically. (28)

The book is a light read and the life reported on is an interesting one.  His stories about changes in the news media as they enter the television age are also interesting, and will call to mind parallels with the current shift to the internet.  The reporter’s observations and views give meaning to the disparate adventures he has and he’s a decent gentleman that you’ll be glad succeeds.  If you want a light read filled with true adventures, give this book a try.

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